A Rutherford County Election Commission meeting set for Thursday to consider the job performance of the county’s elections administrator has been postponed until concerns about requirements of the Open Meetings Act can be addressed, according to the commission chairman.
“I believe in the Open Meetings law,” commission Chairman Ransom Jones said. “We will comply with the intent of the Open Meetings law.”
In a June 9 meeting, Jones brought up the need to evaluate the job performance of Nicole Lester, administrator of election. But the matter was not listed on the agenda and came up under “other business” instead.
After discussing the matter, commissioners decided to hold a meeting Thursday (June 26) to decide whether to fire Lester, let her resign or come to some sort of reconciliation.
Lester contacted Elisha Hodge, the Tennessee Office of Open Records counsel, the next day and raised concerns about what took place during the meeting.
No formal complaint has been filed, Hodge said Wednesday. Instead, Hodge said Lester requested that she prepare information to let the commission know what it is allowed to discuss during meetings.
Hodge explained that all Rutherford County Election Commission meetings are “special” meetings, therefore, each item to be discussed must be listed on the agenda.
Hodge said she spoke with Chairman Jones about the matter, too, and drafted suggested language for the next meeting to ensure it complies with the Open Meetings Act. Hodge said she also encouraged him to consult with the county attorney to make sure the next meeting is held properly.
In a lengthy letter to Election Commission members, the administrator of elections responded to numerous items raised by Jones in the June 9 meeting.
Jones told The Post last week that Lester was working only a couple of hours a day before going home, in addition to displaying poor management, which led to “terrible” morale in the Election Office. He said he had discussed the matter with her numerous times since she was hired in 2011 and even placed a letter in her personnel file in November 2012 asking her to change her work performance.
Regarding his concerns that she was in “technical compliance” with the county’s employee handbook for work hours but not following the “spirit” of the law for exempt employees, Lester wrote that she worked 75 extra hours in 2011 and 200 extra hours in 2012. In 2013, a non-election year, she said she worked 150 less than normal, which still gave her 125 uncompensated hours.
She noted that when Chairman Jones was asked to define an “exempt” employee, he told the commission it is “just a classification, but that it was being abused, so we changed that.”
Lester writes in her letter that federal law doesn’t allow the classification to be changed. But she said if the commission wants her to switch to an hourly employee and get paid for the time she works, including overtime and compensatory time, she would be “more than willing.”
Responding to Jones’ claim that she is not an effective manager, Lester wrote, “Several members of the Election Office staff have been adversarial, both to each other and to the Election Administrators hired by the Republican-majority Election Commission since Hooper Penuel retired.”
Office workers “would have you have believe that Mr. Penuel was a model administrator,” she wrote, but added she’d heard there was gossip, complaining and checking on his time sheet behind his back.
Lester contends she managed six elections, implemented the voter photo ID law and completed redistricting. In addition, she wrote that she enrolled in management classes, as Jones recommended, and continues to take them, using many of the techniques she’s learned.
“Even though I continue to improve myself daily, I am constantly berated by office employees behind my back with such statements as, ‘Nicole is at a class today so she can learn how to be our boss.’ Then laughter ensues. I know this because some other employees have informed me of this behavior,” she wrote.
“That is the attitude and mentality of some of the office staff – that of middle school aged children. Jealousy, dissention and animosity exists between several of the employees. If there is truly any low morale in the office, it is due to that type of juvenile behavior … not my professional behavior and attitude.”
Lester said she has sought to reorganize the staff to make it more efficient but has been stonewalled. She points out that the state Division of Election believes she is doing a good job and adds that no task is “too little” or “too small” for her, including cleaning toilets and sinks and mopping.